Boom Supersonic was to bring faster flight back to the commercial market. The company is working to build a 55-passenger aircraft that can travel at 2.2x the speed of sound, carrying passengers between New York City and London in three hours. This travel was previously the realm of Concorde. It was terribly expensive and never particularly profitable. Boom hopes to change all of that and I’m incredibly skeptical.
During a briefing at the Paris Air Show last week in Le Bourget, France, the company’s CEO Blake Scholl presented an update to the industry about where the company stands and what’s next. In his view the business problem of Concorde was, in part, that it was too large. It carried too many passengers and that made it heavier than it needed to be and also stretched the marketing economics. Scholl wants to halve the capacity of the plane, selling a 55-seat model that will be easier to build and easier to sell out at full price, helping ensure airlines maintain profitability as they operate the type. There’s still a ways to go to get there.
— Seth Miller (@WandrMe) June 20, 2017
First up is the XB-1, a mini version of the supersonic craft to demonstrate proof of concept before building the full thing. The XB-1 has a refined design with additional air intake and tweaks to the wing and tail design. The company also believes it is in a good position funding-wise to get the XB-1 built and flying by late 2018. And it announced a tripled order book of 76 aircraft from 5 airlines. Scholl was clear that some of these are real orders, “not just Letters of Intent” and that real money is being paid to secure delivery slots. He talked up the value of new materials, especially in composites, that will solve many of the metal challenges faced on Concorde. That’s a lot of new going in to commercial service in a very short time span.
Scholl also highlighted the new cabin interiors for the full size version of the aircraft. The default layout will feature 55 business class seats that, while offering significantly more privacy, look a lot more like what one would call premium economy today. They’re not full beds but very nice recliners. And that mostly makes sense for routes in the 3-4 hour range such as across the Atlantic Ocean. There will also be a flat bed option for longer routes such as the Sydney – Los Angeles run. That trip will take long enough that a passenger expects a full bed to sleep in and Boom will deliver. The company will trade 40 business class seats for 30 first class beds, offering a mixed cabin configuration of pure luxury or just really, really nice seating for the transoceanic hop.
Here are a few things that I question regarding the product’s viability based on what I heard during the press conference.
Building a new commercial aircraft is hard
Bringing a new aircraft into commercial service is an immense challenge. Not only does the company have to make the technology work, but it also has to navigate the challenges of FAA certification and produce aircraft in a manner that in consistent and easily reproduced. That’s not to say it is impossible, of course, but it is very expensive, requires tons of expertise and experience. Larger companies with lots of experience in such things have managed to fail at timely introduction of new types in recent years showing just how challenging it can be. Scholl’s answer to that was, essentially, that the team is really, really motivated to get it done. I like that passion and excitement but I’m not so sure it makes airplanes fly.
New planes are very expensive
List price of the Boom supersonic jet is $200mm. And Scholl expects that airlines will pay that price, not the significantly discounted number that airlines are accustomed to paying today. That’s very expensive, especially for a 50-seat aircraft. Boom’s angle is that the plane will demand significantly higher yields and that it will be able to fly more premium passengers each day, further increasing the profitability. But that also means a certain scale of operations and frequency of services that exceed the current premium travel demands. Put another way, for the NYC-London daytrip crowd the plane either sits idle while passengers are attending meetings or it flies back and forth in that time. So are there enough people flying at less ideal times to justify those operations?
When Concorde stopped operations it was only flying a couple routes and reportedly only one of them profitably. The New York – London route is one of the heaviest travelled premium cabin markets in the world and pulling 50 or 100 of those passengers each day on to a supersonic service should be easy, it would seem. Then again, the all-business players in that market have not seen great success. That said, the differential they offered did not include significant time savings. But what other routes will be successful? Scholl wants to change the way everything over 1000 miles operates. That’s a ton of routes, most of which do not support the higher priced premium cabin travel today.
— Seth Miller (@WandrMe) June 20, 2017
Scholl is also banking on passengers changing carriers to save time. That’s a big bet and one that will require major time savings on more than just one or two routes. Also, travelers typically don’t fly only one route. An airline would need to meet a customer’s needs on multiple flights to really prove viable. That’s good for Boom as it means selling more planes, but I question the economics on many of the routes drawn on the Boom map shown during the presentation. San Francisco or Los Angeles to Tokyo bring decent demand to the market. New York or London to Dubai have a lower number of passengers flying just that segment rather than connecting onward. That raises challenges around the total time savings and the premium price to build passenger demand. Especially if it becomes a hub-and-spoke operation with typical connect times rather than just gas-and-go.
And it isn’t just about pulling 50 or 100 daily passengers away to fill the Boom planes. Those paying top dollar for premium travel between business markets want the flight at “their” time of day. The 6p and 7p flights from New York to London cater to different passengers. Expecting them all to go at 6:30p is unlikely to yield successful results.
Finally, the company released details on the aircraft spec’s again as part of the briefing.
It is the last little bit of the design spec concerns me. All the talk about a day trip to Tokyo from the West Coast for a quick meeting or a flight from New York to Dubai was impressive, but those routes exceed the 4,500 nautical mile range the release describes. Maybe those are 2nd generation ideas and will operate on a different version of the aircraft. But is a refueling is required that means a landing somewhere. That takes time and takes away from the allure of the supersonic option.
Even if the range issue is fixed a day-trip to Tokyo seems incredibly aggressive. Assuming a 2 hour business meeting and a 6 hour fly time (Boom’s number from the presentation) and a transfer from the airport to the meeting and back that’s a mighty long day and really only works for someone based in San Francisco. Leaving Tokyo at 7a on a Boom flight would arrive just after dinner in San Francisco. That’s not a great day-trip turn.
All the skepticism, but . . .
So, yeah, I’m pretty skeptical of the overall situation here. I asked the company PR crew for clarification on a couple of these issues but haven’t heard back yet. And the worst part is that I really, really want it to happen in my lifetime. I just missed getting a flight on Concorde before it exited the market and getting to go that fast and that high would be absolutely incredible. I absolutely want to see the product succeed. But I’m mighty skeptical of Boom meeting the technical and business challenges and also of the airline business case being made.
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